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Learn Any Language in 6 Months

Topics: How To, Japan, Language


Read Time: 15 minutes
By utilizing techniques such as spaced repetition, complete immersion, and prioritized learning, Im
confident that anyone can learn any language to conversational fluency in six months or less. I started
learning Japanese in November of 2008 and within two months I had learned the meaning of 2000+
kanji, and within six I was having conversations with strangers at rock concerts (cute Japanese girls!).
Im not trying to glorify myself here either Im a particularly weak-willed person and getting
motivated for me often involves a literal act of God. Language learning has been put on a
golden pedestal for most people, achievable only for the super-intelligent. Because of this false
imagery and a bad case of failure-leading-to-lack-of-motivation seen in high school language classes,
very few people achieve any real success. But if you are simply willing to put in the time, you too can
have interesting conversations with people from distant lands.

Step X: Prepare Your Mind


You can do it.
Believe and have faith, this is the first and most important step. I know it sounds cheesy and
motivational, but its true. Decide that you want to learn a foreign language and commit yourself to it.
Imprint it to your mind and imagine yourself already at the goal. The most successful people are the
ones who can best visualize their goals, and they dont let excuses prevent them from reaching their
goals they find a way get around them. Understand that youll encounter barriers preventing and
hindering you from reaching the goal, but decide beforehand that youll find a way to overcome them.

Step X: Learn the Characters of Your Target Language


For languages with alphabets differing drastically from English (Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Arabic,
etc.), learn the alphabet first. This shouldnt take more than a day or two when using an SRS (Ill
explain what this is in a moment).
For Chinese, Japanese, and languages with characterized written languages, I suggest familiarizing
yourself with the meanings of characters before learning their pronunciation. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but theres a reason. Essentially there are three parts to a character meaning,
pronunciation, and the written character. By skipping pronunciation you can simplify the learning
process and familiarize yourself with characters faster than by trying to memorize two things at once.
Check out Charles Heisigs books Remembering the Kanji or Remembering the Hanzi for learning
characters and further discourse supporting this method.

Step X: Using an SRS (Spaced Repetition Software), Make Native


Sentence Cards
SRS is a flashcard-like computer program which allows you to create digital flash cards and study them
in the most efficient manner possible. Basically, our memory works best when we repeat items that we
want to learn. Just like when you repeat the chorus of your favorite song twenty times on your iPod,
SRS imprints the facts into your mind by repetition. But the problem with conventional flashcards is
that you end up studying the difficult cards with the same frequency as the easy ones, wasting your
precious time. Using an SRS solves this problem by automatically repeating the cards at the optimum
time interval. Difficult cards get seen more often than easy ones, and you learn your language faster.
The SRS I use is called Anki, and I highly recommend it.
Now that we have the right tool for memorization, we need to know how to use it for maximum effect.
From personal experience Ive found that learning complete sentences, even if they are small, is the
best way to study a language. Cognitive reasoning is one of our most powerful tools here. The brain
easily takes phrases and pieces them together to create sentences and communicate ideas. Dont study
vocabulary by itself as this is a waste of time. All you have to do is fill your mind with example
structures of everyday sentences in your target language, and your mind will automatically fill in the
necessary vocabulary and verb conjugations.
Example flash card from my Anki deck (you may need Japanese text support enabled):
Front:

Back:

Who is person who watched movie?


There are a few things to take notice of in this example. First, I didnt worry about translating the
sentence into English. As long as I can understand the meaning it doesnt matter. Second, the sentence
is short and simple. Linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen suggests the i + 1 method, where you add one new
item to your knowledge. Try to never make a card with two new words in it. Thirdly, the sentence is
native. I dont remember where I got it, but its not an English thought translated into Japanese, its
real Japanese from a native Japanese source. A dictionary with good examples sentences is one of the
best sources for word-specific native material. Thinking in L1 (your mother tongue) and trying to
translate to L2 (target language) is detrimental. Learn to think like a native by imitation, just like a
baby!

Step X: Complete Immersion: Input Before Output


Another deciding factor for success is immersion. Complete immersion. If you want to learn this
langauge, really learn it, then you have to spend every waking moment in it. Most people fail at
learning new languages because they simply dont spend enough time in L2. Taking classes is especially
deceptive because they make you feel like youre learning, when in fact your going at a snails pace. I
got straight As in my High School Spanish class, but when I took a trip down to Mexico City I realized
just how valuable my two years of study were worth: NIL. I was one of the best students in my class,
and I still couldnt handle the most basic Spanish conversations.
Every aspect of your life should be entrenched in your target language. Do you use the internet?
Download your internet browser in L2. Do you read the newspaper? Find a way to get it in L2. Do you
have a smartphone? Switch the default language to L2. Watch movies in L2. Listen to L2 music
exclusively. Every aspect of your life from now on should be done in the language you want to learn. If
you want it bad enough youll find a way.
But I dont live in country X! How can I be completely immersed with all this English around me?!
I feel this is one of the biggest language myths ever. You dont need to live in France to learn French.
You dont need to live in China to learn Chinese. You dont need to live in Latin America to learn Latin.
Wait a second thats not right. Anyway, there are plenty of resources available to you (many for free)
where you can get a life-like immersion experience without a 10 hour plane ride. Granted that the real
immersion experience is better, but I can surf YouTube for hours and get nearly the same native
language exposure as somebody who lives in Japan.
There is no need to worry about understanding the language right away. Complete immersion means
you wont understand everything, and thats okay. Listen even when you dont understand. It usually
takes babies a year of listening before they start talking, and as adults we have the advantage because
we can already think logically and dont have to figure out our vocal chords.
Dont force output. It will probably take months of high quality input before youll feel comfortable
speaking. I feel this is a major flaw in modern teaching methods, and one of many reasons to avoid the
classroom. Many college professors expect their students to produce native-like sentences after the
first few lessons! Their theory is that you should make mistakes often so that they can be corrected,
leading to a better understanding of the language. Bull. Mistakes only create bad habits and confusion.
Learn it right the first time and you dont have to worry about it. Output should feel natural and
mistakes should be avoided at all costs; dont be in a big rush to speak.
Recommended Inputs:

Listen to free audio-book downloads before going to bed. When was the last time someone
read you a bedtime story? Its incredibly relaxing.
Always carry an L2 book with you. Everywhere. Audio-books in conjunction with paper books
are awesome when you want to learn pronunciation.

Computer programs with any clout will have a slew of language options. Switch them to your
L2.
Buy an iPod touch or smartphone and download the Anki app and a dictionary. Youll be able to
study your flash cards anywhere.
Think in L2. Whenever I thought a thought in English, I did my best to rethink it in Japanese.
Eat your countrys cuisine. Life revolves around food in most countries, so being accustomed to
and knowledgeable about native foods will give you an automatic in when visiting.
YouTube
Movies but DO NOT use English subtitles! Theyre a crutch that prevent you from diving into
the language fully.

Step X: Prioritize
A typical unabridged Chinese character dictionary will have more than 40,000 independent entries. It
would take a lifetime to familiarize yourself with all of these characters, but thankfully languages
follow the rule of 80/20, a.k.a. the Pareto Principle. What this means is roughly 20% of those
characters are used 80% of the time. A well-educated Chinese student will recognize upwards of 7,000
characters, and reading a newspaper may require a working knowledge of 3,000 characters [1]. We can
find the same thing in English The Reading Teachers Book of Lists claims that the first 25 words make
up about one-third of all printed material in English, and that the first 100 make up about one-half of
all written material [2]. Using an SRS like Anki and a dictionary with good example sentences, the
initial effort of memorizing 100 words should take three days at most. Three days for 50%
comprehension! I know I know, that number is slightly overstated because many of those 100 words are
lemmas (more than one word like is can be He was, I am, You are etc.), but you see the
point Im trying to make right? By learning the common words first, you quickly increase your effective
comprehension of the language. Note: You can find the first 3000 common Japanese words in this post.

Step X: Make it Fun; Choose Material Comparable to Your Current


Interests
Beyond the first 500 words or so, I suggest learning interest-specific or field-specific vocabulary. Take
the things you currently do in L1, and do them in L2. Find a way to make an L2 copy of your current
self. Language learning isnt difficult, but it does take focused effort over a long period of time. If you
want to make this endeavor sustainable, and it must be sustainable, it sure as hell better be fun. Like
any good drug addiction, you want to keep coming back to it again and again. I treat myself to a cup of
coffee or tasty drink every time I do my SRS reps.
When I was studying in Japan, I completed an introductory program for the PA-10 Mitsubishi robotic
arm. It involved learning basic robotic arm control, which was comprised of creating a computer
program from scratch, solving inverse kinematics problems, and a mother trucker load of questions for
my Japanese lab-mates. In order to communicate effectively I had to learn some of the technical
jargon associated with robotics. Now Im pretty confident using words like (inverse matrix),
(restart), (shaft axis), (kinematics), and (Mechanical Engineering). This kind

of vocabulary would be useless for anyone else, even most Japanese, but it was essential for me and
my situation.

Step X: Goal Setting Small and Achievable with Consistency

During my most intense period of learning Japanese, I bought this calendar for 100 Yen ($1) at a thrift
store and used it as a daily visual reminder of my goal to become fluent. Each day I accomplished my
(small) goal, I took a big red marker and made an X on the day. The sense of accomplishment I felt
after each Xd day helped to create even more momentum for the next day.
Learning a language takes a lot of effort, so keep your goals small and achievable while finding ways to
keep them sustainable over long periods of time. A small effort every day for a month is far more
productive than three days of caffeine-induced cramming. After a few days of studying youll become
more aware of your physical limitations; its at that point you want to create a daily goal. Make your
goal achievable, but somewhat of a stretch. Too easy and youll end up cutting yourself short, too hard
and youll get disappointed by failure. The key is long-term sustainability.
In contrast to this, dont put an extended timeline on your goal to become fluent. When youre first
starting out you shouldnt worry about when youll arrive at your goal, or make baseless assumptions
about how long it should take you to acquire a 10,000 word vocabulary. Yes I know, the title of this post
is Learn any language in 6 months, but it may take some people longer and others shorter. Just start
walking the road and have a surprise party when you get to the end.

Step X: Never Stop Learning


I attempt to live my life in such a way that Im always exposing myself to new ideas and attaining new
knowledge. But at the same time, I make an effort to not forget the things Ive already learned.
Learning a new language is an exciting and fulfilling experience, but not quite as fulfilling ten years
from now when youve forgotten everything youve learned. The initial effort of learning is long and
tough, but the fun kind of tough, and similar to getting a freight train moving. The power you need to
start is immense, but as soon as youre moving, its not too hard to keep going. Many people are willing

to put forth the effort to get the train started, but dont quite realize that the train will eventually
come to a slow stop if they dont keep shoveling the coal.

Step X: Further Reading and Resources


ajatt.com All Japanese All the Time dot com. This is the blog that inspired me to pursue fluency in
Japanese and provided the resources and ideas that are making it possible. Purveyor of the 10,000
sentence method: learn 10,000 sentences in an SRS to achieve native-like fluency. Major props.
antimoon.com Polish pioneers of the SRS/sentence learning method. These guys learned English to
college level fluency in 3 years using their method.
How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months Author Tim Ferriss wrote an enlightening article that directly
inspired my writing this post. Hence, credit is due. Our content is similar in many ways, but disagree
with him on some points. I encourage reading his post also to gain a broader perspective on language
learning.
Anki The free SRS that makes it all possible. I suggest watching the Intro Videos to get a better
understanding of the concept.
Supermemo Articles Supermemo, the original SRS, was created by Dr. Wozniak who has written not-afew articles about SRSing, memory, and acquiring knowledge. Recommended reading: 20
Rules and Memory Myths. Fascinating stuff.
Do you have any language acquisition stories? Failure/Success stories? Discussion and idea-sharing are
encouraged, so post a comment!